Chief Francis Kariuki of Lanet-Umoja, Nakuru North district, shows his Twitter home page on his smartphone at the Supreme Court on March 19.

Chief Kariuki shows his Twitter page

The app is FireChat, which enables users to connect to each other using bluetooth and wi-fi. All users need to have is the app on their smartphones. Once they connect, other users can connect automatically to them, creating a mesh network. The more the people on the network, the bigger and faster it becomes.

Users download the app and join or create groups with other users within within 200 feet (60 meters) of their location. Once connected, they are able to share information and communicate at no cost.

FireChat was created by Open Garden, who are working with the tech-savvy Chief Kariuki to localize it. The app has been deployed all over the world, coming to prominence when it was used in protests in Hong Kong, where authorities shut down mobile networks, so users resorted to creating a mesh wi-fi network for communication. It has also been used at the Burning Man Festival, in political protests in Moscow, and to connect people in Tahiti  after a cyclone wiped out cellular network coverage.

“FireChat has been used to share information about large events, elections, traffic, weather and risks of disaster in many countries around the world,” notes Christophe Daligault of Open Garden. “This is the first time that FireChat is being used as a ‘neighborhood watch’ application.”

“Most people in my village live within 50 meters of each other. One person can send a message, which will bounce from user to user, starting with those nearest to the sender and going all the way to the furthest,” Chief Kariuki said.

“It is easy to localize FireChat”, Christophe adds. “Anyone can create a new chatroom on any topic, simply by typing a hashtag in a message. For example, following #LanetUmoja on a smartphone will bring you to the corresponding public chatroom, which in this case is Chief Kariuki’s Lanet-Umoja group. People can also have private conversations on the app without the need for mobile data.”

Chief Kariuki rose to fame globally for his use of Twitter to fight crime. Lanet Umoja residents subscribe to his tweets via text, so they receive a free notification every time he posts something on the social network. With FireChat, he hopes to add multimedia and interactivity, because the tweets via text are one-way and are only limited to text.

“The app works like any other messaging app, but the fact that it does not need a mobile network makes it easier to use in case of an emergency, such as a robbery or a missing person”, he added. “People can communicate to others in a group or individually. Messages go from one phone connection to another, but only the intended recipients can receive and read them.”

As more Kenyans start using smartphones, they are starting to use apps more. Messaging apps such as WhatsApp are growing in popularity, although the fact that they use mobile data means that they require a reliable connection to work, and this is not always available. With FireChat, however, users can connect with each other using bluetooth and wi-fi,  and form small off-grid networks through which they can communicate in case of an emergency. They can do this in places with limited network coverage, and the relay method of transmitting messages means that everyone can be reached in a short period of time.

Chief Kariuki’s innovative use of social media to fight crime and other social evils has had an impact on the lives of Lanet-Umoja residents. He is able to broadcast a message to 28,000 residents at one go, mobilizing the community to find missing persons, catch criminals and return lost livestock. He hopes that the new app can enable these residents to share the task of sharing important information and keeping their community safe.

Photo via The Star

Eric Mugendi Author

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